Why should poets engage with ‘ordinary people’? They don’t exist

Ordinary is just the word we use for the less intellectually sophisticated


“The best part of human language, properly so called, is derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself.” So wrote Coleridge in the great 17th chapter of Biographia Literaria that deals with his friend Wordsworth’s argument that the proper diction for poetry consisted in language taken from the mouths of men in real life, under the influence of natural feelings. The language, in Wordsworth’s own words, of men “in low and rustic life... because in that condition our feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity... are more easily comprehended and more durable”. Tosh, said Coleridge. If anything, a country life, where it is not buttressed by education or original sensibility or both, must suffer from insufficient stimulus and is more likely to lead to a hardening and contraction of the mind. The best parts of language are the product of philosophers, not of clowns or shepherds. Clowns or shepherds! – ah, those, reader, were the days.

Because the argument cannot finally be settled, we’ve been having a version of it ever since, the pendulum swinging now in favour of the philosopher, now in favour of the poet, now in favour of difficulty, now in favour of simplicity, according to the mood of the times. Only recently, speaking after judging the 2014 Forward Prize for Poetry, Jeremy Paxman stirred the ashes of this old contention when he accused contemporary poets of seeming sometimes to be talking to one another instead of raising their sights and “engaging with ordinary” people.

If he didn’t go so far as to invoke the virtues of low and rustic life that’s because no one any longer does, but there’s a comparable sentimentality at work. The terms have changed. We cannot call a class of persons “low”. And it’s a while since we saw our society as divided along urban and rural lines. North and south yes, but that’s not an argument between thinkers and shepherds. Every village now hosts a literary festival. There are polytechnics, or what used to be called polytechnics, from the lecture rooms of which one can hear cowbells. A modern Coleridge would accept that it’s possible today to be provincial without being gross. But we still feel the need to distinguish between the intellectually sophisticated and the less so, and the word for the “less so” is “ordinary”. Scarcely a literary prize goes by now (scarcely an election either) in the course of which we don’t worry about the obligation of writers (and politicians) to satisfy the expectations of ordinary men and women, even if we aren’t sure who they are.

I will resist the obvious rejoinder – that you have only to look at the standard responses to books on the internet to see that there is no form of language basic enough, stripped sufficiently of subtlety or ambiguity, for some readers ever to understand. Are they the “ordinary people” whom poets should be aiming to please, or is there another intermediate group, people somewhat less ordinary – ordinary plus – in which case ordinary isn’t the word for them.

There remains truth, nonetheless, in Paxman’s charge that “poetry has connived at its own irrelevance”, though not quite the truth he intends. Tom Wolfe said something similar about contemporary novelists. Afraid to be chroniclers of their times, he argued, they sought refuge in obscurity and experimentation, thereby losing for the novel the great readership that Dickens once enjoyed. The Bonfire of the Vanities was Wolfe showing how it should be done. The only shame was that it wasn’t a better novel. What Wolfe the dandy journalist failed to understand was the element of marvellous irrelevance that the greatest art must always to some degree connive at.

Which doesn’t mean that writers should eschew the ambition to be universally understood, even if it’s impossible. When Dr Johnson wrote of rejoicing to concur with the common reader he was embracing an ideal – the common reader as philosophically conceived. Such a being might not in actuality exist but it’s writerly good manners to proceed as though he does. Ulysses pushes out the boat, but Finnegans Wake is an act of bad faith.

Concede even that much, however, and aggressive ordinariness will see its moment and take its revenge. What passes me by has failed, it will say, though everything but the message on a greetings card passes it by. And it’s then that the writer will bridle, reminding the complainant of the benefits of difficulty, of the part which struggling with texts plays in freeing minds that otherwise will harden and contract. As for poets talking to one another, that’s been going on ever since there were poets. It sharpens wits when it’s combative; it touches hearts when it eulogises or laments. Either way, there is pleasure in it for participants and spectators alike. Art is interlocutory, bound to be inward as well as outward looking – a reflection on art itself. And why, if these are benefits and pleasures, would we deny them to those whom we stigmatise even more than we indulge when we brand them “ordinary”?

I called once for a moratorium on the word “dream” – as in “I had a” – when all that’s meant by it is the desire to win Britain’s Got Talent. We don’t need a spacious word for a low ambition. The phrase “low ambition” will do just fine. I now propose a similar moratorium on the phrase “ordinary people”, for surely no person is never visited by the flame of the exceptional in one part of his being or another. If I’m wrong and there is indeed a dull soul for whom such visitations are neither conceivable nor welcome, then no artist should be measured against his blankness. He that will not rise to art cannot be reached by it.

I have no desire to pick a fight with Jeremy Paxman. He is the best there is. But what would he say to someone who told him he should raise his sights and try harder to engage with ordinary people? Be more like Susanna Reid, say, or Nigel Farage?

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